The causes of intolerance and prejudice in Buddhism

buddhism-in-burma

An article I published in the excellent Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific ‘New Mandala’:

‘A sense of bewilderment is often apparent when news of violence appears with regard to Sri Lanka and Burma. The incredulity could be summarized in two ways. For the Asian Buddhist the idea is dismissed that the teachings of the Buddha could ever lead to hostility. ‘Buddhism’ is airbrushed from the scenes of violence and in its place the only thing seen is the threat to the nation, a threat to the culture and a threBuddhismat to the religion.

For the Western observer there is the idea that those committing these acts are not ‘real’ Buddhists. The original teachings have mingled with culture to such an extent as to become unrecognizable – dig beneath the culture, to the text, and there the ‘real’ message of the Buddha will be found. For the West (and I use the term ‘West’ not in a geographic sense but to imply those societies irrevocably influenced by modernity), Buddhism has to be separated from its cultural environment. This is out of necessity – for it is assumed that Buddhism is not a ‘religion’ at all. It is a pristine ‘other’, standing alone and somewhat aloof from the messiness of the masses. The notion that Buddhism is not a ‘religion is often a shared idea of the modern West and modern Asia.

To an extent, of course, these reactions overlap. However, it is important to keep in mind the differences. For the Asian Buddhist the ‘West’ can never culturally understand Buddhism (for the West is ‘foreign’ – modern and corrupt). Whereas for the Western Buddhist, it is precisely these cultural accretions that obscure the real teachings. The East is naïve and lacking sophistication. Both East and West, when they look at Buddhism, search for ‘authenticity’.

Should it come as any surprise that Buddhism has recently shown hostility to other religions? On the one hand, yes. Buddhism has portrayed itself, and been described by Western commentators as the ‘religion’ untainted by ‘religiousness’ (dogmatism, violence, fundamentalism). This has taken so many forms that it needs little further explanation. It is the religion of choice for the compassionate, modern individual. That this has been so readily accepted can be appreciated when many believe that Buddhism has a pure history in which misdemeanors, carnage, war and hostility has been committed by everyone, except the Buddhist. This is why there is such shock accorded to recent violence in Sri Lanka and Burma.

If we are seeking clues as to the origins to such hostility, we should not turn to the core textual tradition (although some Buddhist groups might turn to a particular text to justify its position). In the fundamental ideas of the Pali Canon, or the early Sutras of the Mahayana tradition, the teachings of the Buddha are based on tolerance and compassion. However, in seeking the causes of intolerant and prejudiced Buddhist attitudes the textual tradition is not the place to look.

The roots of intolerance might be found in the reaction of one Buddhist group to another. For example, although notoriously intricate, there appears to be something of this sectarian attitude in the emergence of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Mahāyāna identified itself in opposition to what it termed ‘Hīnayāna’ Buddhist groups. Although Mahāyāna is often translated as ‘Great Vehicle’ and Hīnayāna as ‘Smaller Vehicle’ – term ‘hīna’ actually means ‘inferior’, ‘low,’ ‘poor’, ‘miserable’, ‘vile’, or ‘contemptible’ implying a detrimental religious aspiration.

The internal evidence then suggests that the some Buddhist schools had an uncompromising attitude to other Buddhist schools. With the rise of Buddhism in the West (including the Asian ‘West’) – that ‘intolerance’ is pronounced. There is an internal dialogue about which group is the most compassionate. In fact, I think other Buddhist groups, whether Asian or in the West are using this ‘stick of compassion’ on Burmese Buddhists, as a way of distancing the rest of the Buddhist world from the situation in Burma. There is an evaluation of which group is more authentic – in short there appears to be dogmatic rigidity running through Buddhist history. It is in these aspects of Buddhist history, I suggest, that the roots of Buddhist hostility are found.

I am suggesting that there is a tendency in Buddhist history to negatively evaluate other Buddhist groups. Its intolerance of others could come from an intolerance of itself. From this it should come as no surprise that there is a negative evaluation of non-Buddhist traditions.

When this tendency expresses itself in modern Asian history we find Buddhist defending the so-called ‘Buddhist flag’ (the sāsana flag, designed by J.R. de Silva and an American, Colonel Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880) and raging at the blasphemy of those who handle it inappropriately.

There is the idea that the ‘outsider’ cannot understand the cultural subtleties of Buddhism. The notion of the superiority of Buddhism, often based upon a supposed scientific resemblance and methodology – Buddhism is better because it is more ‘scientific’ more ‘rational’. And because it is perceived as ‘better’ Buddhists go to war, discriminate against others, take Buddhism to be an essential factor in the formation of national identity, and do things that, in other respects, we might find are completely contrary to the Buddha’s teachings.

There is an historic pride in the fundamental goodness of the Dhamma which causes conflict and hostility. There are enough teachings in the Buddhist Canon that warns against such an attitude, but there are also many examples in Buddhist history where a strong sense of pride in one’s own tradition is supported. It is precisely where an attitude in which the most compassionate, the most Buddhist, the most traditional are valued – that intolerance in Buddhist culture comes into focus. National identity has become inseparable from Buddhist identity in much of Buddhist Asia and both have become something other from what they otherwise would have been. Intolerance and prejudice are not far from such an identity and belongs in neither.’

Paul Fuller has a PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Bristol.  He has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK.

 

6 thoughts on “The causes of intolerance and prejudice in Buddhism

  1. I’ve been noticing lately that the governments of most countries that presently are, or historically were, nominally Buddhist countries – i.e. where the majority of people are Buddhist and where there is a state religion it is Buddhism. The typical form of government is militaristic with a tendency to authoritarianism and all too often totalitarian.

    It seems Buddhism is good for individuals and awful for nations. Buddhist groups are somewhere in the middle.

    I agree that Buddhist texts have always shown a degree of antipathy for outsiders, be they Brahmins in the Pāḷi Canon or Śrāvakas in the Mahāyāna texts. Hīnayāna is a insulting pejorative with caste-hatred overtones (cf. hīnajāti, hīnayoni, etc). However that did not historically manifest as parallel sectarianism outside India. I don’t think the hostilities expressed in North Indian texts can explain attitudes in East Asia. Even the so-called Hīnayāna was only a notional concept in Asia.

    I think we need to look more closely at how pacifism and disconnection from worldly concerns leads to political disengagement so that extreme elements are able to dominate politics in Buddhist countries. Interesting that you noted earlier that Cambodian monks are becoming political. (Cambodia, home of Pol Pot!) And of course we’ve seen Burmese monks involved in demonstrations against the junta – though the presence of the junta is an historical legacy of earlier communal violence.

    We need to look beyond religion. For example, in the Sri Lanka conflict religion appears to be secondary. The primary motivations seem to be nationalism and racism (based on appearance, custom and language differences). Religion is incidental. The “country” we think of as Burma or Myanmar is made up a dozens of very different cultural groups who have long history of mutual antipathy.

  2. Thanks jayarava. I agree with most of your comments and really enjoy this observation: ‘It seems Buddhism is good for individuals and awful for nations. Buddhist groups are somewhere in the middle.’ If I ever start start using that idea in the future please remind me that you said it first. (Edit: At the same time I have met some individuals for whom Buddhism is awful). I also strongly agree that we need to look beyond religion to understand these conflicts.

    One of my motivations in writing this is a sense that some are using these conflicts as a way of ‘bashing’ Theravāda Buddhism and conflating these ideas with Hīnayāna notions. Sometimes these concepts are used like they are part of a very bad undergraduate essay in Buddhist Studies. Like you say, these ideas were purely notional in India (Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna) – I fear that in the modern discourse they are taken to be real and historically concrete ideas.

    Thanks for your comments – really helpful. If you do get a chance then please also post them on the New Mandela website: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2014/07/21/causes-of-intolerance-and-prejudice-in-buddhism/

    • “I agree with most of your comments and really enjoy this observation: ‘It seems Buddhism is good for individuals and awful for nations. Buddhist groups are somewhere in the middle.’ If I ever start start using that idea in the future please remind me that you said it first”

      I would humbly suggest that you don’t, Dr. Fuller. I’m sure that some time during your education you were acquainted with the axiom ‘Correlation doesn’t imply causation’. Simply put the reason the typical form of government [in Buddhist-majority nations] is militaristic with a tendency to authoritarianism and all too often totalitarian is due to the fact that the typical form of government is militaristic with a tendency to authoritarianism; authority through force of arms is the very definition of a nation-state. Furthermore, the case can be made that when compared to the Abrahamic religions, the Dharmic and Taoist religious/philosophical traditions have much more fertile ground for anarchism and anti-authoritarianism. Imagine a China not only without Confucianism, but one that took verse 60 of the Tao Te Ching (http://ctext.org/dao-de-jing#n11651) as its credo.

      Sincerely,

      Lleij Samuel Schwartz

      • Hi Lleij

        “authority through force of arms is the very definition of a nation-state.”

        How is this not an argument from correlation? How many exceptions would be required to falsify this? For example Iceland is a nation state through dint of extreme weather and isolation more than force of arms. Many small nations (think about the dozens of Pacific or Caribbean nations) have no military to speak of. Some places are nation states just because everyone agrees they are. Estonia never could defend itself and has passed back and forth between various Empires, but is currently a nation state through peaceful means, indeed through the collapse of the force of the Soviets..

        In any case the point I’m trying to make might be better phrased this way: Buddhism as a state religion is no protection against authoritarianism or totalitarianism.. It’s important to state this since many Buddhists are utopian in outlook. They believe that if we can just convert everyone to Buddhism, or at least get everyone practising mindfulness, then heaven on earth will ensue. I’m arguing against that utopianism,

        “Furthermore, the case can be made that when compared to the Abrahamic religions, the Dharmic and Taoist religious/philosophical traditions have much more fertile ground for anarchism and anti-authoritarianism.”

        Well I too would like to see you try to make this case. It’s not the utopian idealism of the adherents of a religion that determines the government. All the religious texts in the world make no difference as far as I can see. That’s the point eh? Buddhism might appeal to people who are anti-authoritarian, but it doesn’t usually work the other way around. Buddhists form authoritarian social structures – based on the model of the monastic sangha perhaps.

  3. Thanks ever so much for your comments Lleij. I don’t have much to add to your ideas – I do have a question though. I’m only asking out of interest to see what you ideas are. You state that:

    ‘Furthermore, the case can be made that when compared to the Abrahamic religions, the Dharmic and Taoist religious/philosophical traditions have much more fertile ground for anarchism and anti-authoritarianism.’

    Do you want to briefly make the case and expand on this? I’d be interested to see how you argue this point. In many ways I find that traditional Buddhism is very much allied with tradition and an amount of authority. I’m not sure that this would be seen as problematic?

    Thanks again.

    Paul

  4. Pingback: The roots of intolerance and prejudice in Buddhism | Dr Paul Fuller: Buddhist Studies

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